Last reviewed 12 April 2012

From the beginning of June 2012, organic products certified in Europe or in the United States may be sold as organic in either region. Henrietta Clarke looks at the implications.

The organics sector in the US and the EU is valued at about €40 billion and is increasing every year. This partnership between the two largest organic producers in the world will establish a strong foundation from which to promote organic agriculture, benefiting the growing organic industry and supporting jobs and businesses on a global scale. Organic farmers and food producers on both sides of the Atlantic will benefit from easier access to both the EU and US markets with less bureaucracy and lower costs, strengthening the competitiveness of the sector. At the same time, consumers will benefit from improved transparency on organic standards. This agreement only covers products exported from and certified in the US or the EU.

In the past, growers and companies wanting to trade products on both sides of the Atlantic had to obtain separate certifications to two standards and therefore a double set of fees, inspections and paperwork. This new partnership will eliminate significant barriers, especially for small and medium-sized organic producers. All products meeting the terms of the partnership can be traded and labelled as certified organic produce, meat, cereal or wine. Both the EU organic logo and the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic seal can be used on these products.

Compatibility of standards

During the last two years, both parties have conducted a thorough on-site review to ensure that their programmes’ regulations, quality control measures, certification requirements and labelling practices were compatible. A series of technical discussions and on-the-spot missions in the US and EU were part of the review. At the end of this review process, the EU and US agreed to mutually recognise each other's standards and control systems as equivalent. There are small differences between the EU and US organic standards but both parties individually decided that their programmes were equivalent except for the prohibition on the use of antibiotics.

Use of antibiotics

The USDA organic regulations prohibit the use of antibiotics except to control invasive bacterial infections (fire blight) in organic apple and pear orchards. Therefore, agricultural products derived from animals treated with antibiotics cannot be marketed as organic in the US. Aquatic animals such as fish and shellfish are not included within the scope of the agreement. The EU organic regulations allow antibiotics only to treat infected animals. For all products traded under this partnership, certifying agents must verify that antibiotics were not used for any reason.

Organic export certificate

All products traded under the partnership must be shipped with an organic export certificate. This must show the production location, identify the organisation that certified the organic product, verify that prohibited substances and methods were not used, certify that the terms of the partnership were met and allow traded products to be tracked.

Overseeing the partnership

Both parties are committed to ensuring that all traded organic products meet the terms of the partnership and retain their organic integrity from farm to market. This will be overseen by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development and the US Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Programme which oversees all US organic products. Both parties will continue to have regular discussions and will review each other’s programmes to verify the terms of the partnership. They will also begin to work on co-operation initiatives to promote organic production and tackle topics such as animal welfare. Technical information will be shared, as will best practices, to enhance further the integrity of organic crops and livestock production systems.